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Top Tips for Better Grammar in Business Letters

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 20 Apr 2012 | comments*Discuss
Grammar Business Letters Run On

Unlike the content or tone of a business letter, which will vary according to purpose and audience, good grammar is essential in each and every business letter you write.

Unfortunately, even the most conscientious writers are bound to make some mistakes. To help you avoid errors in your business letters we have put together the following list of common grammatical errors and how to avoid them.

Fewer vs Less

"Fewer" should be used when discussing multiple items (nouns) - or items which are generally referred to in plural e.g.: "We need 250 fewer newsletters this month"

Less is used when referred to a single item or something that is generally referred to in the singular (such as time) e.g.: "Spend less time on the Sanderson case tomorrow"

I.e. vs E.g.

Abbreviations such as "i.e." and "e.g." are often misused. Both are abbreviations from Latin phrases, "i.e." the abbreviation for "id est" or "that is" and "e.g." the abbreviation for "exempli gratia" or "for example". If you would write "that is" or "in other words" then "i.e." is appropriate. If you would write "for example" then "e.g." is appropriate.

Their vs There

"Their" and "there" are homophones. That is, they are pronounced the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Spell checks do not pick up homophones if the words are spelled correctly, though some grammar checks do. "Their" is a plural possessive pronoun, which means it shows possession for a group. "Their ideas" and "their project" are both correct.

"There" denotes a place. "We will meet you there" and "If it is not there, keep investigating" are both correct though because "there" is vague it should not be used if a specific place name can be used instead.

Its vs It's

"Its" is a possessive pronoun which modifies a noun, which means "its" is used to show possession of something. "Its glossary is still being printed" is the correct use of "its".

"It's" is a contraction of the words "it is" or "it has". "It's a useful resource" is the correct use of "it's" but contractions should be avoided in formal business letters.

Your vs You're

"Your" is a possessive pronoun, which means it denotes possession. "Your dedication" or "your experience" are both correct uses of "your".

"You're" is a contraction of "you are". "You're expected to attend the conference on 21 May" is a correct use of "you are" but, again, contractions should be avoided in formal business letters.

Affect vs Effect

"Affect" is a verb. "It will not affect the project" and "It will affect your overtime pay beginning in January" are both correct uses.

"Effect" is a noun. "The effect of the medication was not known at the time" is correct. In very limited circumstances, the verb "to effect" may also be used in the same ways as "to bring about". "We hope to effect change quickly" would be correct for this usage.

Run On Sentences

Many people define run on sentences as "really long sentences" but a more technical definition is "sentences which in which two independent clauses are joined without punctuation or an appropriate conjunction". The easiest way to remedy a run on sentence is to break it into two distinct sentences. For example, "Raphael is a committed employee, he routinely arrives early and stays late" could be better written as "Raphael is a committed employee. He routinely arrives early and stays late."

Double Negatives

Double negatives such as "We're not pleased with nobody's yearly reports" actually conveys that "not nobody" did a bad job, so therefore "somebody" did a good job. Double negatives are awkward and can be confusing, so should be avoided in favour of more clear writing. "We are not pleased with anyone's yearly reports" is a better option for business letters.


Apostrophes are used in contractions and to show possession. "Jonathan's the contact for that project" and "Mei Lin's skills are better suited for a sales position" are correct uses of apostrophes. In business letters, writing out both words is usually preferable to using a contraction. "Jonathan is the contact for that project" is more formal and a better option for business letters. Forgetting apostrophes turns nouns into plurals (Jonathans and Mei Lins) and obviously should be avoided.

Grammar can be very tricky, but learning the answers to the most common grammar questions should help you with everyday grammar issues. If in doubt, consult a dictionary, book of grammar and punctuation or style guide for further explanations.

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